To answer perhaps the most important question about Dogman – yes, you can watch it as an anxious dog-lover. Matteo Garrone’s ruthless, thrilling new film directs all its threat at its human lead, Marcello (Marcello Fonte), leaving the canine stars largely untouched. Any film can raise its stakes by putting a pet or a child in harm’s way, but it takes a truly powerful filmmaker to craft the year’s most consistently stressful film without resorting to any such cheap tricks. Back in the low-life criminal territory that made his name with Gomorrah after the interesting but flawed English-language fantasy Tale of Tales, Dogman is a prime example of a great auteur absolutely in their element.
Marcello is a diminutive dog groomer/sitter with a sideline in small-scale cocaine dealing in a bleak, seemingly lawless town where he’s stuck in an abusive relationship with unpredictable bruiser Simone (Edoardo Pesce). The coke-addled Simone insists that the pair are friends, violently coercing Marcello into aiding him with petty crime, and the painfully loyal Marcello seems to have convinced himself to believe the lie. It’s a deeply sad dynamic, the kind of which we see very little in films, with a history left open to interpretation.
In his interactions with Simone, Marcello is tragically pitiful, a quivering lapdog to Simone’s rabid Rottweiler, but Garrone and his writing team give him a full life outside of these encounters. He’s amicably divorced with a great relationship with his daughter Alida (Alida Baldari Calabria) and an absolute wizard with his dogs. In the very funny opening scene, he tames a snarling pitbull through a combination of kind words and careful shampooing, and his bond with the other animals is completely genuine. This skill is a powerful contributor to the physically unpleasant waves of anxiety you feel every time you hear Simone’s motorbike pull up outside Marcello’s doggy day care – not only is he in physical danger, you’re invested in the charmingly hardscrabble business that is put at risk.
Your hackles will be up for a good portion of Dogman – the tension never drops below a rolling simmer and there are few other cinematic villains of 2018 that you want to see dead as much as Simone. His presence is felt constantly, a testament to the oppressive atmosphere built up by Garrone and the striking performances from Fonte and Pesce. Fonte won the Best Actor award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and it’s a well deserved prize.
It’s a great performance, bleak and terrorised and loaded with misery, always offering contrition in any stressful situation. Any hint of Marcello biting back is hugely cathartic, and Fonte does a fantastic line in very consciously steeling himself for confrontations that, physically, he cannot possibly win. As humiliations are heaped upon him, Dogman can be a difficult watch, but it’s also so gripping that it’s impossible to look away. All the dogs collectively won the Palm Dog as their co-star took home the acting plaudits, and they’re worthy recipients, Garrone deploying them expertly to hammer a scene home.
He crafts plenty of heart in mouth set pieces. A daring rescue of a chihuahua from a pair of thugs is heroic, high-wire stuff, and the explosive finale is so intense that it will have you fighting for breath. There’s hardly a moment where Dogman isn’t totally, almost aggressively, transfixing, and though that makes for an exhausting experience, it’s also evidence of a filmmaker in complete command of his material. With this and Happy as Lazzaro, Italian film is having a banner year abroad, and it’s hard to imagine a Best Foreign Language Film nominee list that doesn’t include Dogman.